Leading The Brokenhearted

I never imagined I’d be writing this post. But I have coached more stressed and grieving people over the past year than I have in my whole career. Challenges of every sort seem to be buffeting us, and their effects accompany us into all aspects of our lives… including into the workplace and into the hands of devoted community and organizational leaders like you. So here goes: an executive coach’s exploration of leadership in brokenhearted times. 

There is no predicting the accident, the diagnosis or the addiction; the mass shooting or the private abuse. The fire, flood, quake or hurricane. The disturbing national event or the cataclysmic organizational shake-up. We think of these as the unimaginable tragedies that happen in other places and to other people. Not here, to us.

But these past many months have reminded us that tragedy can strike right where we stand. The unthinkable happens, and the affected take a bit of time out to register the blow. But then – grieving, disoriented or even traumatized – they show back up to work. They may be walking back into your workplace, to your team. And there you are,  leading people in their most raw and human moments, when their well-pressed suits can’t button up their sorrow. If the tragedy has hit your whole community or workplace, you may even have to lead the brokenhearted while your own heart is in shreds.

If this happens to you, it will be a crucible in your journey as a leader, calling upon you in ways you can’t imagine. Although you can’t predict these moments, you can prepare for them: personally, relationally and structurally.

Preparing Personally 

Who you are is how you lead – and that is never so true as when the chips are down. Your own experience with tragedy will naturally shape how you manage others in heartbreaking times. So it can be helpful to review your own history with trauma, grief and loss, and take clear-eyed stock of their imprint on you as a person and as a leader. The “grit and grace” lens is one simple way to self-reflect.

Grit is a crucial leadership trait in difficult times. It helps you focus on the work at hand, drive to make progress and provide others with a sense of stability and predictability. To what extent does grit show up in you during tough times, and how does it manifest? How has that grit served you or others in tough times?

As useful as grit is, it’s also possible to bring so much of it that others experience you as uncaring or unapproachable. For example, has your own history trained you to ignore or power through your own emotions? Is there any chance that you expect (or hope) that others will do the same? Does vulnerability make you squeamish or judgmental? Becoming more at home with challenging emotions (your own and others’) can help you prepare to be more open-hearted when others are facing difficult times.

Grace. Perhaps your response to tragedy tends toward grace, which is a key aspect of the ‘consoler in chief’ role. Grace offers compassion and comfort to those in pain. But too much grace can get you in over your head. You can become so identified with others’ suffering that you lose your objectivity and find yourself crossing the line from leader to rescuer or enabler. You can be so flexible as to create havoc on the rest of the team and on productivity. So being too helpful can put you, the employee and the company at risk. If you tend to be grace-full to a fault, you might want to set up some guardrails that prevent you from going overboard on overhelping.

The optimal stance, in tragedy as in most things, is a blend of grit and grace, which allows you to be appropriately sensitive without losing your own footing. A shining example of blended leadership in recent times is Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Here’s a clip of Cruz, where her deep care and steely resolve are seamlessly woven together.

Turning grit & grace toward yourself. It’s hard to lead well when the well is empty. In times of tragedy or challenge, it’s crucial to attend to yourself. Most leaders would tell you that self-care is absolutely necessary, yet few actually put that into practice. They treat it as optional: something they’ll get around to when they have the time. But if you are leading the brokenhearted, self-care isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s a necessity that requires both resolve and self-compassion. Get sleep. Exercise and eat well. Go easy on the alcohol. Do things that nourish you. Draw on your support system; consider getting counseling for yourself. Structure your time, adjust your expectations and renegotiate your commitments to align with the realities of life in a time of upheaval.

Preparing Relationally 

You can’t know in advance what people will need when tragedy falls.  But you can prepare by knowing what kinds of conversations you’ll need to have when it does.

If you’re leading someone(s) going through difficulty, don’t make any assumptions about what support he/she/they need from you. Don’t assume that what you would want is what they want. Even if you know them well, don’t assume that you know the brokenhearted them.  Tragedy changes us and reveals aspects of us that we may not know or show under normal circumstances.

How do you know what support to give someone? Ask them. Does he need time off, or does being in the office help? How does she want you to answer other people’s questions about what’s going on? What can you share, with whom? What needs to be kept private? Do they want you to check in with them, or would they prefer that you not ask how they’re doing unless they bring it up?

Sometimes people can’t articulate what they need, but they know what won’t work. So if they don’t know what support to ask for, you can ask them what you could do that would be counterproductive or unhelpful for them. A lot of clarity and wisdom can surface there.

Even as you accommodate (as possible) someone who’s reeling, you still have to make sure that the work gets done. This is delicate terrain, where you need to keep grit and grace in balance. The best way I know to navigate this is to explicitly acknowledge the challenges of working while recovering, and make explicit plans and agreements. Talk with the brokenhearted person, and then the team, about how the work’s going to get done while someone is either physically out of the office or is present, but less mentally/emotionally available.

Here’s an example from my own experience. My father died when I was 30; my mother had died several years earlier. That second loss really threw me, and my performance was very uneven while I grappled with it. I’d get totally overwhelmed, out of nowhere. My boss noticed this new unpredictability and sat down with me to create a strategy.  We moved one of my deadlines back by a few weeks, and moved one of my projects to a teammate. We agreed that I would work in the office as much as I could, but that I could leave the office on short notice if I felt overwhelmed. Sometimes just knowing I had the space to leave enabled me to stay. Sometimes, I needed to step away for an afternoon or a day. So I briefed a co-worker on my deliverables and kept him in the loop so that he could step in at any time if needed.

It wasn’t easy, but it worked. My boss’ explicit collaboration with me and engagement with other team members gave me the room to recover without derailing the team’s ability to deliver.

Preparing Structurally 

While you may not have given these worst-case scenarios much thought, your organization probably has. Most organizations have created structures to help you support staff through difficult times. Rather than waiting till a tragedy hits to know what these structures and resources are, you can meet periodically with your HR professionals on the following questions:

  • What actions are within and beyond the scope of your role as a leader, when responding to employees going through challenging times?
  • What are the resources available through the organization’s Employee Assistance Program? How does an employee go about engaging EAP services?
  • What is the manager’s responsibility and process for notifying company officials if an employee appears to be a danger to self or others?
  • What internal programs (such as leave-sharing, disaster relocation funds) has the company established? How do they work?

Leading the brokenhearted is perhaps the most delicate, difficult and important work you will ever do. It will stretch your character, heart and competence in ways that everyday leadership won’t. Though we like to think that tragedy won’t happen to us or “ours,” the truth is that it can land at your feet in an instant.  And while you’ll never be ready, you can prepare.

 

 

Personal Renewal: The Neglected Leadership Competency

Ah, management: that sweet gig where you disseminate upper management’s coherent strategies, delegate work to your ample staff, ponder the big picture and get home in time for dinner…

…said no manager, ever.

The great majority of my executive coaching clients report feeling taxed to the max. They put in 10 – 12 hours at the office, handle the home front in the evening, and then hit the computer for a few more hours to tame the email backlog that accumulated during the day’s non-stop meetings.

Burning the candle at both ends often starts as a one-time thing. Then it stretches into a week, and then into a “season.” Leaders often tell me (and their families) that they’ll get back to healthier routines as soon as things settle down. Yet often, the reality unfolds quite differently: leaders become trapped in an addictive cycle of responsiveness and self-neglect. As the cycle continues, the environment only calls for more, and the responding “self” drains down and down.

If you’ve been or worked for a leader who ignored his/her well-being, you know the costs: mental and physical depletion, strained relationships at work or home, unhealthy team dynamics, errors, lapses in judgment, etc. Neglecting ourselves doesn’t just affect us; it affects our teams, our organizations and our intimate relationships.

We can lead well only when we are well.  We know this. We agree with it. And still, so many of us don’t live it. And we have some pretty legit-sounding reasons why:

  • “It’s self-indulgent.”
  • “It’s expected here. Everyone here puts in these kinds of hours.”
  • “It’s just a really busy time.”
  • “I’m handling the stress just fine. In fact, I thrive on it.”

As valid as those reasons may sound or be, they can easily become unconscious, unquestioned beliefs that sabotage our personal sustainability and effectiveness.

When we start to see our resourcefulness flag, we often just power through the symptoms. But in doing so, we miss vital performance feedback from our body. Our exhaustion, irritability, etc. is our body’s “sustainability” performance appraisal. It’s telling us that we’re “exceeding expectations” – and not in a good way. Renewal is the remedial action.

Personal renewal is the single most neglected competency of leadership. It is as critical to long-term effectiveness as strategy or execution. Yet, unlike other leadership competencies for which we are trained, assessed and rewarded, the responsibility for the “renewal” competency is ours alone.

“Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have… Any time we can listen to the self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.”  ~ Parker Palmer

What about you?

Do you relate to personal renewal as a necessity, as a luxury, or as irrelevant?  Where do those beliefs come from?

What are the early signs that you’ve been neglecting the “personal renewal” competency? How does that show up in your outlook, body, relationships, and overall performance?

What are the late-stage signs that you’re in a danger zone of self-neglect?

What is the story you tell yourself to justify overlooking your own renewal?

What are the two or three most important habits that support your well-being as a person and a leader?

What would it take for you to commit to one of those habits in a sustained way?

 

 

 

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Leading In The Eye Of The Hurricane (Part 4): Connecting To What’s Essential and Enduring

This is the fourth of my five-part series on crisis leadership.

If you’re like many people, you tend to equate ‘crisis’ with ‘disaster.’ But the word crisis actually comes from the Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ It describes any event – whether positive, negative or neutral – that separates a new reality from an old one. Thinking about crisis in terms of ‘separation’ certainly doesn’t eliminate the difficulty and loss of change.  But when leaders look at crisis as being cast into a new world, vs. as being thrown to their doom, they may be more able to navigate the storm of change productively.

In Part 1 of this series, I explored the implications of this different lens on crisis, and mapped out four essential “renewal” tasks for crisis leadership: 1) Catching one’s breath; 2) Confronting what’s happening now; 3) Connecting to what’s essential and enduring; and 4) Charting the next right step.

Part 2 focused on the first of those tasks: “catching one’s breath.” This task requires pulling yourself out of the fray of change and into the eye of the storm, where the winds are quiet and the skies are clear. Taking the time to reflect and get your bearings feels counterintuitive when the world is going haywire.  But it’s critically important work, because it’s hard to lead others when you’re in a swirl.

Part 3 explored the task of “confronting what’s happening now.” In disruptive change, the world is rearranging us, so we must likewise shift our response to it. To do that, we must lead others in seeing what’s happening, making sense of it intellectually and processing it emotionally. This is what it means to confront something – to face it head-on and heart-in.

This post is about the third task of crisis leadership: connecting to what’s essential and enduring amidst the change.

In crisis, we can become preoccupied with what’s being lost or threatened. Your world may be turning on its head and upending you, your team and your organization in the process: fighting for survival; recasting missions; questioning long-held beliefs; restructuring, regrouping or recovering.

But in the press of adaptation, we often forget to anchor ourselves in those things that aren’t changing, which can sustain and stabilize us. These are usually deeper “DNA” things like values (personal and organizational), shared history, accumulated knowledge, unique capabilities, or a strong reputation. There’s an essential “you” (or “us”) that continues, even if you have to radically change how you express it in your new reality.

Over the past months, I’ve been in conversations with many leaders who are remembering to tap into what is essential and enduring.  Here are some examples of how they’ve expressed that:

“I know we have to pay attention to the business. But focusing on our people is the only way this business survives.”


“Everything about how we do our work is changing. And personally, I don’t agree with the new direction. But I keep bringing myself and my staff back to our core mission – which is, has been, and always will be – of vital importance. We will adapt whatever we need to in order to keep this critical mission alive.”


“The company is exerting enormous pressure on us to sell, sell, sell. But what’s always won us business is delivering exceptional results for our clients. So that’s what we’re going to keep doing. I’m keeping an eye on sales, but I’m not going to chase ‘just any’ work or work we can’t deliver on.”


“Our church is losing its pastor after 30 years. We have two main tasks in this transition.  The first is to affirm this community’s many strengths, which are the pastor’s legacy to us. Our second job is to be intentional about drawing on those assets, so that the congregation stays robust beyond him.”

We can all take a cue from these leaders, who are drawing on foundational values and assets for stability in the storm. But that doesn’t mean it’s all going to work out for them – or you. Maybe you’ll still have to lay off staff. Can you challenge yourself do that in a way that’s true to the organization’s animating values? True to your own? Perhaps your team will lose the funding for its cherished project. Rather than fight to keep a doomed project alive, can you lead your team in reimagining its offering for a new world?

This makes sense, right? But you’d be surprised how often I see leaders abandon essential and enduring strengths as they scramble to adapt to a new reality. Try not to join their ranks. Instead, remember to articulate and amplify what is good and abiding amidst the change.

What about you?

  1. Think of a time when you led (or are leading) in profound disruption.
  2. How consciously or effectively did you leverage the power of what is “essential and enduring” during that time of change?  What were the results?
  3. The next time you face a major ‘separation,’ how can you better articulate and amplify the aspects of your organization that will continue?

 

 

 

 

 

Leading In The Eye of the Hurricane (Part 3): Confronting What’s Happening Now

This is the third installment of my five-part series on crisis leadership. The premise of the series is that leading in times of crisis (disruptive change) requires, to quote Liam Neeson, “a very particular set of skills.” This post examines another of those important capacities.

First, a quick recap. The word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ We normally think of a crisis as something terrible. But it’s actually any cataclysmic event that separates “what is” from “what used to be.”  Crisis shakes up our habitual notions of reality, identity, meaning, possibility and what/whom we can trust. You may see the Presidency of Donald Trump as the edge of Doomsday or a floodgate of opportunity. Either way, this is a time of crisis, in the sense that it’s a profound separation from what has been. And you are leading in it.

In Part 1 of this series, I mapped out four essential tasks for crisis leadership: catching one’s breath; confronting what’s happening now; connecting to what’s essential and enduring; and charting the next right step.

Part 2 focused on the first of those tasks: catching one’s breath. Catching your breath requires pulling yourself out of the fray and into the eye of the storm, where the winds are quiet and the skies are clear. Getting centered is counterintuitive when the world is going haywire.  But catching your breath is crucial, because it’s hard to lead others when you’re breathless.

This post zeroes in on the second task: confronting what’s happening now.

Because crisis disrupts what we’ve known and relied on, it challenges how we think about ourselves and our world. So in times like this, leaders need to help their team to get grounded and to differentiate reality from the predictable hallucinations of fear.

Fake news, fact-as-opinion and partisan information bubbles make it very challenging to get an accurate picture of reality. Here are a few tips for getting your bearings in the swirling hurricane of change.

  • Adopt a “beginner’s mind.” In chaotic times, it’s natural to try to minimize confusion. But the danger in that is that you might miss critical information. Navigating crisis requires leaders to model the ability to stay curious, keep learning, and adjust as you go. Try not to assume (or let others assume) that you know how this situation is going to go. Beware of over-simplifying a complex and nuanced reality. Take care not to shut down to perspectives or people that you disagree with. Stay open.
  • Engage your stakeholders. Don’t make assumptions about what your customers, suppliers, competitors, employees and bosses are experiencing. Ask them – and let in what they’re telling you.
  • Get educated. If your business is affected by pending legislation, read the bill itself, rather than relying on legislators’ or media’s interpretations. Consult legitimate media sources on the left and the right. If you’re wondering if media reports are accurate, here’s a link to an article by FactCheck.org on how to spot fake news.
  • Look at objective measures. Facts are the best stars by which to navigate this new terrain. But since “facts” have become a matter of opinion, make sure that the methodology by which the measures were arrived at are sound.

Once you gather information about what’s happening now, you have to make sense of it intellectually. Involving your team in this process is a great way to get everyone engaged, out of denial and up to speed. Here are examples of questions you can ask:

Based on what we’ve read, heard and experienced…

  • What do we know?
  • What do we not know, and when/how will we find out?
  • What do our data indicate will be the most likely outcomes?
  • What are the opportunities and threats of those outcomes?
  • What contingencies should we be preparing for?

The last, and perhaps most difficult, aspect is confronting what’s happening at an emotional level. Disruptive change has a profound impact on us personally, and failing to deal with these impacts is often what inhibits our ability to adapt.  Here are some questions you can use to confront the new reality at a personal level:

  • How does this all affect me?  How does it affect us?
  • What do I/we need to confront about the world or ourselves to really let this information in?
  • How do we feel about what we know?  What emotions does it stir in us?
  • How might our emotions and reactions be clouding our view or impeding our progress?  How might we manage that?
  • How can we leverage our emotions to foster positive action?

One of the greatest temptations in crisis is to jump to action. Sometimes, immediate action is exactly what’s called for. But often, that impulse to act is rooted in a desire to escape discomfort. Taking the time to catch your breath and to critically assess what’s happening can help you take action that is rooted in reflection, vs. in reactivity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leading In The Eye of the Hurricane (Part 2): Catching One’s Breath

Six weeks ago, I posted the first installment of “Leading In The Eye of the Hurricane,” a five-part series on crisis leadership. I knew then that big change was afoot, though I’m not sure many of us knew how hard the winds of change would blow.

The word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ A crisis is any event that fundamentally separates what is from what used to be. Whether we see this disruptive event as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ it shakes up our habitual notions of reality, identity, meaning, possibilities and what/whom we can count on. You may see the Presidency of Donald Trump as the edge of Doomsday or a floodgate of opportunity. Either way, this is a time of crisis, in the sense that it’s a profound separation from what has been. And you are leading in it.

In Part 1 of this series, I mapped out four essential tasks for crisis leadership: catching one’s breath; confronting what’s happening now; connecting to what’s essential and enduring; and charting the next right step.

This post focuses on the first of those tasks: catching one’s breath.

Whether perilous or auspicious (or both), a crisis is a stormy time when the winds of change howl at hurricane force. For most of us, the instinct is to jump into the swirl and do something. Have you had any experience with that in the past couple of months? If so, you may have noticed a lot more activity than productivity, because we’re often taking action from an off-balanced place.

People are intently looking to you for What To Do, so it can be counterintuitive to slow down and get still. But that’s exactly what’s needed, because your wisest action will arise from your deepest center. Most leaders agree on the utility of entering stillness, yet most say it’s a lot easier said than done.

First you have to notice when you’re in the frazzled fray, so you can recognize when to pull back. The signs of being off-center are different for everyone, but can include:

  • an inability to sleep, and/or chronic exhaustion that is not improved by rest
  • increased irritability
  • confusion or overwhelm
  • obsessive thinking and/or engagement in media
  • a change in eating or drinking habits (e.g., consuming more carbs, fat and alcohol)

Even if you notice these symptoms in yourself, you may tend to override or gut through them. But these signs are actually your greatest allies, because they’re telling you that you’re probably not at your best. Heed them as a call to pause.

Leaders often tell me, “I know I need to take a minute to get myself right, but I don’t have the time.” As compelling as that narrative is, it’s counterproductive. Most of us think ‘pausing’ means taking a huge time out: a trip to the Carribean, a retreat to the mountains… But who has time for that? In times of wild change, leaders need to come back to center over and over while on the run – much like tennis players return to a balanced stance after every stroke.

The most accessible pause button is the breath. Slowing and lowering the breath, even for 30 seconds, changes your inner circuitry. It stills the inner winds. It lowers anxiety and returns oxygen to the brain. With oxygen comes clearer thinking.

Try it right now. For the next 60 seconds, relax the muscles in your belly. Gently inhale for four slow counts and exhale for six, letting your belly passively receive and become empty of breath. As you do this, see if you can rest your attention simply on the gentle sensation of that process. At the end of that minute, compare how you feel now vs. a minute ago.  What do you notice?

If you have more than one minute to pause, by all means take it. Take lunch and eat good food. Take a walk around the block between meetings. Listen to a piece of music you love. Get in the pool or the gym. Leave work on time for once. Take a mental health day. Take a social media sabbatical for an hour or two. The goal is to interrupt the spinning so that you can find your ground.

Once you’ve found the stillness of the eye of the hurricane, it’s crucial to get grounded before you go back into the fray. Because if you’re not reengaging from your center, then you’ll reengage from a place of stress. Which, I’m going to guess, may not be you at your best.

In the chaos of disruption, where do you turn to remember who you are, what you stand for and what really matters? Maybe you find your ground in a personal mission statement or a set of core values. Maybe you find it in a tenet or practice from your faith tradition. Maybe nature is what grounds you. Maybe a favorite writer, poet or musician helps you find your center. Maybe your friends or family bring you back.

Where and how you get grounded is a deeply personal and intimate thing. What matters is that you know where your ground is and you know how to find it. The more chaotic the environment, the more often you need to return to your center.

What about you?

Most leaders agree that catching their breath is vital in disruptive times.  Yet so few of them actually do it. What about you? How are you at ‘finding the eye?’ If your answer is “Not so great,” what stops you from doing what you know is so important? Maybe it’s a bit of arrogance: a tacit belief that you, uniquely, can lead with mastery while off balance. Maybe a sense of powerlessness: a sense that you would catch your breath if you could, but conditions won’t permit it. Maybe it just feels self indulgent. Or maybe you just never learned how.

Start somewhere. What is one action you can take today to lead more skillfully in the hurricane of crisis?  Who will support you in carrying that out?

 

Leading In The Eye Of The Hurricane

“Crisis.” You hear that word a lot these days: in the media, in the coffee shop, around the world and around the kitchen table. We speak the word in anxious tones because we equate ‘crisis’ with ‘catastrophe.’ Trust me, I’m right there with you. But I’ve started to wonder. Could the way we traditionally relate to crisis actually limit our ability to respond well to it?

The word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ In this light, a crisis is any event that fundamentally separates what is from what used to be. It is something that shakes up our habitual notions of reality, identity, meaning, possibilities and what/whom we can count on. By this definition, events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the launch of the internet and the 2008 housing crash were all crises. More recently, there’s been Brexit and the U.S election. Whether you view these events as positive or negative, they have fundamentally changed our lives.

So here we are. The wild storm of change is bearing down and you’re leading in it.  People are looking to you for guidance, but you may be thinking, “How do I lead others in terrain that’s alien to me?” Or in plainer terms, “How do I lead when I don’t have a clue?”

The wild storm of change is bearing down and people are looking to you for guidance.

If you’re leading in times of profound disruption, it’s natural to hunker down, drive yourself harder and work longer – as if somehow you could get it all in order. But you’ll exhaust yourself if you try to tame the hurricane of change. You’ll be overtaken if you try to outrun it and upended if you ignore it.

The safest place to be in a hurricane is the eye, where things are quiet and still. There is such a place within you, where you can go to regain your balance, strength and sense of perspective. Those who are following you need you to go there. They need you at your best so that they can be at theirs. The eye of the storm is where you can go to carry out four “tasks of leadership renewal” that are vital in times of crisis:

  • Catching one’s breath (if even for a moment)
  • Confronting what’s happening now
  • Connecting to what’s essential and enduring
  • Charting the next right step

In upcoming posts, we’ll explore each of these tasks in more depth. In the meantime, I invite you to notice what shifts if you view a ‘crisis’ as a radical separation from what was. Such a departure is, at its heart, a transformation. And in it, we will experience not only the tragedy of loss but also the triumph of invention – if we don’t lose our way.

10,000 Strong…And Stressed

people rushing on escalatorI attended the Massachusetts Conference for Women last week, where 10,000 women, dressed mostly in black outfits with sharp, masculine lines, convened for a day of learning from top-notch speakers.

It was a terrific conference and a very worthwhile day. Yet, I came out of it disheartened. Why? Because what I heard, over and over again, were the voices of women under heavy stress: over-programmed and under the microscope; low on sleep and full of self-doubt. For example:

  • On her path of becoming an actress, Lupita Nyong’o talked about having to slay the three inner dragons of “self-doubt, self-hatred, and self-denial.”
  • Hillary Clinton and Tory Burch emphasized that the demands on working women with families were too great to tackle alone. Each woman said that their success simply would not have been possible without strong systems of support.
  • Author John Gray shared research that shows that, in Norway, which has the world’s best working conditions for women, women are still pumping out 4 times as much cortisol (the stress hormone) as men.  And remember… that’s in the best of conditions. For those who are working in less enlightened circumstances or closer to the survival line, the stress is exponentially greater.
  • Women continue to be unsupportive of each other in the workplace.  As TV personality Cindy Stumpo said, “Women in their 40’s and 50’s are the ones intimidating my daughters at work.  We’re supposed to be helping the next generation, not tearing them down.”

I established Leading With Grit & Grace® to support women in forging a more potent and sustainable form of leadership, where toughness and tenderness work in tandem for everyone’s benefit. But what’s hitting me squarely in the face today is that, while we women strive to treat others with both grit and grace, we often fail to direct that virtuous balance toward ourselves.

Rather, grit tends to prevail. We are ever-striving… to do more, multitask more masterfully, get that next promotion, pick up the kids, and look our best while doing it all. Is this our best and only option – to keep tightening the screws on ourselves to satisfy the external demands and power past the voice of self-doubt?

I hope not. I’m interested in a different invitation. Amid the many external demands pressures we women face, how can we increase the amount of grace that we bestow upon ourselves and each other?  What would it take for each of us to take responsibility to give ourselves the kind of care, attention and compassion that we say we need and want?

If you struggle with this – or if you succeed at this – please comment and share your experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Depression Enters The Workplace: What’s A Leader To Do?

For exactly one month now, Robin Williams’ suicide has kicked off a worldwide exploration of the treacherous terrain of depression. While we continue to mourn the passing of a comic genius and a beautiful human being, many of us have also been taking a more intimate look at how depression affects us and those we know. I’ve read so many useful articles in the media. But I haven’t seen anything on the intersection of depression and the workplace – and more specifically, on the challenges that managers face when someone on their team is depressed. So I thought I’d take that on – from a very personal angle.

Anyone who knows me knows that I can bitch and moan with the best of them, but that I am basically a sunny person. I love to laugh and to make others laugh. My friends can count on me to giggle at even their bad jokes and to delight in the smallest of things. And yet, depression runs through my family tree and my personal experience. People don’t realize that true happiness and depression can coexist in a person. Robin Williams is proof of this. So am I. Maybe, so are you.

Depression is like being locked in a soundproof booth with heavy, mean-spirited air. Intellectually, you know that the birds are singing, that you are loved, and that the world is every bit as beautiful as it is botched. But in the soundproof booth, you can’t feel the good stuff. The only thing you can feel is the isolation of the booth and the foul smell of the air in there. No amount of effort or willpower can break you out so that the sunlight can actually reach your skin.

Many people suffering from depression are walking into the workplace… your workplace. And the minute they do, they present a very difficult challenge to their bosses and colleagues. I’ve been through two significant depressions in my life. The first one came in my early 30’s, and I was blessed to have had a manager back then who dealt spectacularly well with me and the challenges that my depression handed to him as a manager. His name was David.

I’d like to share with you some of the many things he did right, in case you ever find yourself in his position.

  • From the beginning, David had established himself as someone with whom I felt safe to share my struggles. Yes, he held us to high standards of performance, but he also demonstrated, time and again, his respect and care for us as people. He always affirmed that our humanity and our performance were inextricably linked. So as scared as I was to reveal my depression to him, I trusted that he would receive it compassionately. And he did.
  • The first thing he said was, “You are addressing this in the most skillful and responsible way.” In that powerful sentence, he communicated that my difficulty did not freak him out. He also managed to affirm a way in which I was still competent, which is easy to lose sight of when you’re depressed.
  • Then he inquired about my external support system. Was I getting help? Was I in immediate danger? Did I have family or friends to lean on? He was appropriately trying to determine whether or not I had the support I needed and whether or not he needed to connect me to the company’s counseling resources.
  • Next, he inquired about my internal support system. Had I experienced this before? If so, what had I learned about the things that helped and didn’t? What aspects of that experience would I be able to draw on now?
  • David helped me to stay engaged at work to the degree possible. Frankly, it would have been easier for him to just tell me to take a leave of absence and come back when I was feeling better. But he took the risk to let me stay involved at work by scaling back my responsibilities and accommodating my more uneven ability to perform. Staying even minimally engaged in our work kept me in the mix of life and in touch with my strengths. That’s not necessarily helpful for everyone, but it was key for me.
  • He protected my need for privacy. Not only does depression feel terrible, but it also feels shameful. David did everything possible to avoid adding to that shame. We decided together how he would communicate my periods of absence to the staff, so that I was comfortable about the narrative. And he stuck to the script, whether addressing staff, peers or senior management.

Here’s what David did NOT do, that also helped a great deal:

  • He did not shut down or withdraw from me. We stayed productively and appropriately connected.
  • He did not take my depression on as his problem to solve. He knew where the boundaries of his managerial role were and never crossed them.
  • He never discounted my experience. He didn’t tell me to “snap out of it” or to “buck up.” Nor did he try to convince me why I shouldn’t feel bad.
  • He did not unload his own experience on me. The last thing I needed was someone else’s pain, disguised as empathy, piped into my soundproof booth.

David did not rescue me. That was not his job and he knew it. But at a time when even the simplest tasks seemed daunting to me, he absolutely eased my way. For those of you managing someone who experiences depression, I hope you will benefit from David’s spot-on leadership. His compassion never wavered, and yet he continued to expect and encourage me to produce to the fullest extent that I could. Grit and grace in powerful combination.

 

Don’t Just Do Something; Sit There!

I did a really good thing last week: I went on a 24-hour personal retreat. From noon on Monday to noon on Tuesday, I set down all my ‘shoulds’ and to-do lists and went with a friend to a log cabin in a wilderness preserve about 2 hours from DC. No agenda – just space, time, wooded trails, a journal and some wholesome food.

As we began our retreat, each of us articulated an intention for our time there. Mine was to feel less scattered, to be restored to a sense of inner consolidation and wholeness. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling better. Within minutes of settling on that porch overlooking the Shenandoah Valley, serenaded by the whisper of dry leaves falling, the sharp inner edges smoothed out. I felt spiritually reconnected. I felt relieved to drop down into a mode where I was not making anything happen.

These 24 hours got me thinking about how much my life supports accomplishment and how little it supports personal renewal. Whether it’s in my business, my home, or in my community, the world around me is always calling for me to do more. And I want to answer that call. So I spend most of my time in what I call my ‘executive function,’ the grit side of myself that plans, aspires, organizes, and gets stuff done.

By contrast, there is very little around me that encourages me to slow down, to inhabit a more quiet, receptive mode. I don’t get messages from my environment saying, “Get less involved!” “Be content with what you have!” or “Hey – winter’s coming: time to slow down.” The drive to take things down a notch comes only from within myself – not because “I’m worth it,” but because I need it in order to be at my happiest and best. None of my most creative moments occur when I’m staring at a computer screen – they occur in the shower or on walks. Busyness does not cultivate kindness in me – relaxation does. The harder I’m driving, the less open I am to inspiration or delight.

I don’t know about you, but the world doesn’t tend to hand me renewal time on a silver platter. I’m going to have to keep carving it out for myself.

I am a fan of big breaks, like spiritual, contemplative or creative retreats or even spa get-aways. These can be immensely beneficial – kind of a whole-being reset. But these big breaks can also be beyond reach for many of us. No worries. Even the smallest reconnection with our ‘grace’ sides can have profound effects. So we have to reclaim and build renewal time into our daily lives, structuring in no-cost, low investment micro-retreats. Here are some ideas:

  • Breathing breaks. Unless the building’s on fire or your kid needs to go to the emergency room, most of us can take 60 seconds out to simply pay full attention to our breath. The breath is an express train into the present moment, which is actually the only place where stress does NOT live. Most stress is a fabrication of our minds, which are either fretting about the past or worrying about the future. For one minute a couple of times a day, be. here. now.
  • Mealtime meditations. When was the last time you sat down to a meal and brought your full attention to the act of eating? When was the last time you really tasted your lunch? Noticed the color, shape and textures of what you consumed? Chewed instead of shoveled? Even eating at your desk can be transformed into an opportunity to cultivate receptivity and presence.
  • Gratitudes. I don’t know about you, but once I get into task mode, I can tend to feel put-upon – even if I’ve put everything upon myself! It can be a game changer to take a second to register one thing that you’re grateful for, one way in which you feel blessed. Research has proven that a gratitude practice yields significant psychological and physiological benefits, and it’s easy to do. You can weave it seamlessly into your day – maybe doing it every time you’re standing at the elevator or walking between meetings. Maybe you write down one gratitude as the first note you take in every meeting. I have two ‘gratitude buddies’ – we try to email each other each day with five things we’re grateful for.
  • Nature time-outs. I have a client who sets a chime to ring on her computer two or three times per day. It reminds her to go outside and connect with the natural world for a minute or two. Nature returns her to a larger sense of perspective and a more gracious orientation to time. Nature’s often closer at hand than you think. Step out of your office and walk around the block. At your daughter’s soccer game, take your attention off of how she’s doing for a few seconds and just feel the sun on your face. At a stoplight, turn off the radio and open the window.
  • Music retreats. Music can change your state almost instantly. Put on a quiet piece of music in your office and just listen. Or shut your door and dance around to a favorite boogie tune.

What about you?

What happens to you when your life becomes all doing (grit) and no being (grace)? How does it affect your health, outlook and energy? How does it affect the quality of your relationships? How does it affect your effectiveness at work and at home?

Have you ever established grace-supporting structures or routines in your life? If so, what were they, and what impact did they have on you?

What impact did they have on those around you?

What enabled you to sustain these structures? What got in the way?

Given the reality of your life these days, what are two things you could do on a regular basis to give your grit-ful ‘executive function’ a break?